Eleven good things about Cape Town’s Drought

By Patrick Dowling
Published in the WESSA (The Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa) newsletter

Beyond the clamour around who’s to blame, conflicting scenario descriptions of day zero and its predicted date, individual and community responses and helpful tips, the drought, now officially the worst on record without historical precedent, has done us all some good.

  1. It has heightened public awareness of the reality of climate change impacts

    The ‘debate’ idea pushed by those too attached to or invested in the old order of doing things should have been firmly put to bed by now. The new normal concept can’t be limited to water only either; fires, migration, health, economy and security are patently part of the picture and a holistic response is required.
  2. The world is taking note of an apprehensive interest 

    At Davos, the favoured, cool, and well-watered Swiss meeting site of the World Economic Forum (where talk is usually about, well, economics, free trade, and all the other good) Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi started the week by telling the 2 500 strong audience that climate change is the greatest threat to civilisation.He was followed soon afterwards by our own Cyril Ramaphosa who added: “Climate change is a reality. We’re facing a real total disaster in Cape Town, which is going to affect four million people.” Meanwhile, other water-stressed cities like Los Angeles, Sao Paulo, and Singapore consider who will be next.

  3. Communities have started working co-operatively and innovatively together 

    There are domestic street and faith-based responses, workplace plans, and frail support initiatives. As people work together, mesh talents and grow trust more dots are joined, giving issues of sustainability and cooperative solutions new meaning and practical application direction.

  4. There has been a rapid water literacy and numeracy upgrade across society 

    People are interested. It is important for people to know that 25 litres of water weigh 25kg, where the water goes if you have to flush it, what a catchment is, and what happens in it.

  5. Talking of flushing the drought has fore-grounded the topic of the need to move away from water-borne sewerage 

    Sufficient water means that the more affluent can afford this luxury. Scarcity means we all need to make a plan; good, appropriate, technically sound ones that should see the saving of at least 30 million litres of water per day.Add to this modification in all the other wastewater pursuits we get up to and the savings become enormous. A few years back, controversial water academic and activist, Anthony Turton, said South Africa does not have the dilution capacity for all its pollution.

    That’s even truer today. By addressing the problem as ‘Plan A’ we start mitigating the degradation of rivers, wetlands, estuaries, and oceans, too.

  6. Government ability is being tested and subjected to scrutiny 

    Not satisfied with glib answers or spin-doctoring? The public is currently interrogating the reasoning and planning in a way that demonstrates a deeper understanding of, and engagement with, issues.Can you really flush with seawater? Are 200 water points sufficient for three million people? Is saltwater intrusion into our groundwater likely? These are the sorts of questions being posed to politicians and officials who are also, happily, being swept along on a steep learning curve.

  7. A big boost of self-sufficiency and resilient thinking 

    All the practical responses to the drought – such as organising a rain tank, bending the ball-valve arm down in toilets’ cistern to reduce the flush volume, or fitting aerators to tap nozzles –  have been a big boost for self-sufficiency and resilience thinking that is pollinating across other areas of life, including energy, waste reduction, transport efficiency, and food security.The consequent empowerment that goes with positive feedback from such efforts means a trend towards less externalisation of our needs and responsibilities, and a greater sense of pride in problem-solving.

  8. It is a reminder to decouple growth from resource exploitation and environmental degradation 

    People’s ability to halve their water consumption in a year, and then do more, shows what is possible.Cape Town’s fossil-fuel-based energy footprint is still way too high. Can that be as dramatically reduced now? Could the plastic waste stream from single-use packaging become a trickle? Is it feasible to so increase marine protected areas and compliance and change consumer behaviour so effectively that we pull back from day zero on the fishing front too?

  9. It has put the spotlight on the essential need for wastewater recycling 

    Cape Town will be joining other major cities in making this part of the new normal. The benefits are significant: less affluent to the sea, less pollution into rivers, greater water security, tighter control on commercial and industrial outflows, more training and jobs for water technicians, and developing an understanding of groundwater recharge implications.

  10. An emphasis on the need to stop pollution 

    Queues at natural springs and seeps around the city testify to the possibly unspoken, appreciation of ecosystem services from wetlands, rivers, the ocean, springs, and aquifers and the need to protect these from pollution and overuse.You can take a wash in the sea, relax in the shade of riverine vegetation, and strip nutrients from your grey water with the help of a home-planted wetland. Kikuyu grass is giving way to hardy indigenous plants.

  11. There is increased empathy with the very poor of the country and the world who face the indignity and stress of water deficit every day
    As we develop solutions to our crisis now it’s important to ensure that everyone benefits from them in the long term. The new normal means a move away from complacency and injustice.

Before we get carried away with the idea of the drought being the best thing ever, we must note the massive increase in the sales of bottled water and the filling of pools by commercial companies – practices that promote the idea of commodifying a common good and pitch the haves against the have-nots.